Under the supervision of kitchen manager/trainer Helen Coyne, formerly a pastry chef at Humphreys and currently a teacher at the Grossmont College Culinary Arts program, the women are handcrafting vegetable platters and preparing dips with ethnic flavors to pair with the platters as a way to support the training program.
Anchi Mei, Senior Program Manager for Food Security and Community Health at the IRC, explained that the IRC had a base of clients who graduated from their vocational English as a Second Language (ESL) program. She noted that about two-thirds of the graduates get jobs but about a third don't, mostly because of their limited skills. This impacts women the most because there is limited literacy in agrarian societies and women aren't given an education.
"With adult learners, the best way to help them with a job is hands-on, real work experience," she said.
Mei explained that the nugget for the concept began last year with a project for the Cajon Valley School District. It was a six-month paid internship with 10 women. Given the institutional demand they knew they had through their procurement planning they decided to expand the program and partner with farmers for the produce. Project CHOP sources carrots from Stehly Farms and citrus from Eli's Farm and R&L Farms. The IRC's Youth FarmWorks provides radishes, chives, beets, and broccoli. Mei told me they're looking for more local farming partners and in the meantime procure organic produce when they can.
There are seven women in this group, who began their training in December. Five are from Congo and two from Syria. Mei said that they begin the program with an orientation and food safety procedures to enable the participants to earn a food handlers card. All of the women are mothers with a lot of time and experience working in their home kitchens so after four weeks of being in production mode, there's not much food prep learning anymore. Instead they're gaining work experience and English skills.
"We go in and ask them questions to help them with their English," Mei said. "Most have never worked outside the home before so having them in a kitchen experience is at least familiar." But, she noted, one of their Syrian women was in the restaurant business and Mei is convinced she could be a food entrepreneur.
The goal, according to Mei is to have their graduates speak English—particularly vocational English—and be job ready by the end of the internship. For Project CHOP it's to sell as many platters as they can so that they're less grant dependent. Platter sales are handled out of their Copley Price YMCA rental site in City Heights. To make the platters more accessible, Cardamom Café & Bakery in North Park is becoming a second pick-up site. The platters come in two sizes with dip choices of Garlic, Herbs, and Yogurt; Smoky Orange Carrot Hummus; and Traditional Roasted Garlic Hummus.
"We want to keep growing," said Mei. "We're starting small and nimble but we have other products in mind for the future, including salad bowls and fruit plates with dips."
To order vegetable platters from Project CHOP, go to their website. You can pick up your order at 4300 El Cajon Blvd. in San Diego and soon at Cardamom Café & Bakery. You can also gift a Project CHOP platter to welcome a new refugee family, including a personal welcome message. IRC's resettlement team will deliver it with your platter.